The S Word

In the long dark hours of a Spring night, a 17 year old boy takes his own life in a Tunbridge Wells park and the coronavirus claims another tragic victim.

Lockdown measures are particularly challenging for teens isolated from the social contact of school life and the support of their friendship groups.

The structure, order, routine and discipline of school cannot be replicated through home schooling and any emotionally vulnerable student is unlikely to get much reassurance from social media.

Parents are rendered powerless and unable to help when their teenage children clam up or say they’re fine.  Tragically, many young people don’t want to upset their Mum so they carry on till they can’t bear it any more and then…..

When I first meet a new client and take a detailed history from them, a question I always ask is ‘have you ever felt suicidal?’.  After an uncomfortable beat, they often reply that ending it all, or not wanting to live their life, was on their mind at some difficult transition during their teens.

For those I’m seeing, that moment passes and they are able to account, from a more mature perspective, for why they felt that way.  And, very often, it’s the kind of thing that adults who, of course, ‘know better’ will bat away with a ‘never mind’, ‘it’s alright’ or ‘don’t be silly’.  That makes being helpless, hopeless or having little control of life, the loneliest of places for a sensitive teen confused by powerful emotions.

That momentary discomfort when I mention the S word is because it’s a taboo subject, the Voldemort of mental health issues.  Maybe, we parents, struggling to make sense of baffling or forgotten teen anxieties, should raise the subject as a general conversation and listen to the fears surrounding it.

Sometimes, seemingly banal or trivial angst is enough to tip a fragile young adult over the edge.  Bear in mind the adolescent brain is hard-wired for risk taking as a crucial developmental requirement for them to step up to adulthood.  It also robs them of the impulse control which may stop them from reacting in extreme ways to a fleeting or temporary, easily fixable drama in their lives.  That is why many bereft families are unable to make sense of the loss of a son or daughter who had everything to live for but chose not to live.

This time of forced proximity might be the time to have that kind of difficult conversation about the S word.  It may give your child pause for thought when times are troubled and bring them back from the brink for a chat and a cup of tea.